- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

Like athletes, vehicle manufacturers have different specialties and levels of ability.

For example, Ford has a reputation for building great trucks. The Chrysler Group pioneered minivans. General Motors long has had a lock on big SUVs such as the Suburban.

What they all have in common is a fierce will to compete, and if that means developing new specialties and invading someone else’s turf, it’s part of the game.

Honda was once a motorcycle company. In the 1970s, it decided to build automobiles, and soon excelled at it. It branched into the luxury field with Acura. After the minivan became popular, Honda made its own incursion with the Odyssey, and it invaded the SUV market with the CR-V, the Pilot and the Acura MDX, as well as the new gasoline/electric category with the hybrid Insight, Civic and Accord.

Now it has the temerity to drive into the pickup truck territory dominated by the domestic manufacturers.

The new entry is called the Ridgeline and, though it poses no threat to the giants, it seems virtually certain to carve out yet another niche in a market that is pockmarked with them.

At first blush, the Ridgeline looked like a pickup version of the carlike Pilot. But the Honda folks knew that wouldn’t cut it with people who need to haul loads and tow trailers. So they produced a hybrid of sorts — a heavy-duty unit body with a truck frame. Then they engineered into that structure an innovation that is certain to woo a substantial number of buyers.

They built a weatherproof trunk underneath the cargo bed, and they made it easily accessible by installing a two-way tailgate. The latter works just like those tailgates on station wagons back in the 1970s. Flip it down and it extends the bed length from 5 to 6 feet. Open it from the right side and it’s easy to get into the trunk.The trunk isn’t overly large. Its capacity is almost 3 cubic feet. But the trunk also houses the spare wheel and, combined with the inside storage space underneath the back seat, provides a total of almost 12 cubic feet of weatherproof storage, or about what you get in a compact to midsize sedan.

Of course, in addition to that, you get the pickup box. It is made of a composite material, is slightly more than 4 feet wide and can carry up to 1,100 pounds. Honda says the box can hold two off-road motorcycles or one full-size all-terrain vehicle.

The Ridgeline comes in only one configuration, with four doors, seating for five and all-wheel drive with a lockable rear differential for moderate off-road duty. The engine is a 3.5-liter V-6, with 255 horsepower and 252 foot-pounds of torque, which gets its power to the wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission with a shifter on the steering-column.

There are, however, different models, distinguished by the level of their equipment. Prices range from $28,215 for the RT, through $30,590 for the RTS, to a high of $35,155 for the fully equipped RTL.

The test truck was an RTL with an XM satellite radio but without a navigation system or a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. It had a sticker price of $33,155, which included side air bags and side-curtain air bags, antilock brakes and stability control, a tire-pressure monitor, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, a motorized sunroof, heated front seats, a power driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar support, remote locking with a security system, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, garage-door opener, a heated windshield zone for the wipers, heated outside mirrors and a power rear window.

The V-6 engine has plenty of oomph — Honda brags that its 255 horsepower is more than that of some competitors’ V-8 engines — and it enables the truck to tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Though it has a fully independent suspension, the Ridgeline’s handling and ride are trucklike, but less so than pickup trucks with traditional body-on-frame construction and leaf springs in back. With a length of more than 17 feet, and slower steering than the Honda Pilot, it’s not going to chase many sports sedans on twisting roads. But it’s more than acceptable in truck land.

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